'Today I make better choices': How NZ's Drug Court changed a man's life

Ngati* was just eight-years-old when his father gave him his first beer. 

His difficult upbringing, which he described as a "Once Were Warriors environment," would lead him down a path filled with crime and addiction.

"There's always something behind it - there's always something behind that crime," the now 49-year-old West Auckland father-of-five told Newshub.

By the time he was 14 he was drinking heavily. Before his 17th birthday he was in jail - a place that would become his second home.

Ngati says almost all of his offending was driven by addiction - first to alcohol, then to meth. He estimates he's spent more than half his adult life behind bars.

"I can't even tell you how many times I've been in and out of jail. I've lost count.

"It got pretty bad you know, I was spending the rent money, I was hardly home and I do have a family and they suffered quite a lot in my addiction."

But that all changed when he was given an opportunity three years ago to have his sentence transferred to the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court.

Ngati spoke to Newshub as part of a two-part series looking into the scheme.

To avoid jail, he would undertake five drug tests every fortnight, regularly attend court and counselling, and - crucially - attend a drug and alcohol rehabilitation programme for two years.

The idea - taken from similar, and successful, initiatives in the United States - is to direct time, money and energy into healing an offender to stop the cycle of reoffending.

Ngati said initially he just wanted to stay out of jail, but quickly realised that prison was the easier option.

"My self-confidence was really bad... I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work and I didn't know whether I would be up for it... at the time I think I was ticking a box ."

Once in the drug court process he was hooked.

"I didn't want to go back to jail. I was really tired of that lifestyle. Every year you know I found myself in trouble and in jail and I just got tired of it, really tired of it."

Ngati said about 20 years ago he tried to ask for help for his addiction through the normal court process but says the judge at the time didn't take him seriously because of his criminal history.

"And that was the only time I put my hand up," he said.

Any progress he made through prison programmes fell away once he got out, as he fell in to the same bad behavioural patterns with the same people.

Before going through the drug court, Ngati says he hated "the system".

He says he was more engaged with the drug court because police, probation, the judge and lawyers - who all attended his Court appearances - were more compassionate and approachable.

"It was totally different from your standard court because there's more interaction with the judge and the panel - the lawyers - yeah there's more interaction. They actually listen and they actually care."

He even considers Drug Court Judge Ema Aitken a friend.

"As time progressed I just saw her as one of my bros and we had a really nice connection you know."

Ngati graduated from the drug court in March last year. He says he's a changed man.

"There are a lot of us who graduate this programme who do come out different in the way we walk and talk and dress and that whole attitude.

"I love my life today, I'm quite content with what I'm doing and who I'm doing it with. I'm so grateful to the drug court because they kind of directed me to where I am today and showed me into the person I am today actually.

"Today I make better choices."

That means he's stayed off alcohol and drugs. He also has a job working as a painter and is studying to be a social worker.

If he hadn't gone through the drug court?

"That cycle would still continue going in and out of jail still using drugs, still ripping off people and just that selfish guy who didn't spend time with his family," he said.

"I'm a different man today. I have got so much love for life." 

Ngati spends much of his time helping others to break the cycle - and he has vowed never to return to prison.


* Newshub has chosen not to publish Ngati's surname. 

Contact Newshub with your story tips: